I’ve been asking myself, “Why travel?” for quite a while. I’ve spent the past several months trying to articulate for myself why I think you should travel. I wrote and rewrote this post several times, trying to capture all of the parts of travel that I think are the most transformational and most likely to encourage personal growth. Ultimately, I decided to lean on some inspirational travel quotes to help me articulate the most compelling reasons I think you should take your next trip.
In my life, travel has opened so many doors, and not just in terms of my relationships or my education or my career. Travel has helped me to better see myself. To learn to become a better version of myself by systematically challenging and breaking a number of assumptions that I had about the world. Travel has helped me during life transitions, improved my friendships, and helped me to grow into a happier person.
So, why travel?
Travel to learn. Travel to have fun and be present and make friends and laugh until you can’t breathe. Travel to problem-solve and innovate and learn and try new things. Travel so that you can cultivate empathy for all of the other people on the planet and all of their ways of life. I hope that you travel to feel more alive, and that once you try it you find that you can’t stop.
1. Travel to learn.
“When overseas you learn more about your own country, than you do the place you’re visiting.”Clint Borgen
Travel to contextualize. Learn about the facts of history and places and events, sure, but also so that you can know how others think. How does the geography of a place inform its history? How does the pace of life differ between countries and continents? What do the perspectives of other people have to teach you about the meaning of community or natural or public spaces or family?
Be curious. Start with the assumption that the places you’re visiting and the people you’re meeting have something to teach you, not the other way around. Share your culture and beliefs if you’re asked, sure, but if you have the opportunity to listen and absorb, take it.
In the process of learning about other people and places, you’re bound to come home with a better understanding of yourself and your own culture than you had when you left. Travel has a way of holding up a mirror to the blind spots we all have about our own cultures and beliefs and ways of living.
2. Travel encourages presence.
“I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living now.”Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
In my experience, the moments in my life when I’ve felt the most present were times when I was traveling. I remember standing on a rock looking out over a vista in Jordan and just feeling alive (and, luckily, a friend captured the moment). Being in a new place can help you to better see what’s directly in front of you because it’s new and engaging and exciting.
The biggest challenge to presence when traveling is also one of your greatest tools: your smart phone. Your phone will help you to navigate on your trip, connect with your Airbnb host, book your next flight, and figure out the best place to eat. It will also make you feel connected to lots of things and people and places that are not a part of your destination. Try to minimize the amount of time you spend on social media, email, Whatsapp, and other distractions–I promise it makes a difference.
3. Travel is fun.
“Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, ‘I would stay and love you, but I have to go; this is my station.”Lisa St. Aubin de Teran
In our seemingly obsessive search for productivity and achievement, it can be easy to trivialize fun. Don’t fall for it. Fun is one of the most important parts of being alive, and it’s one of our most core needs as people.
Travel for the fun of it. For the joy of it. Learn to fall in love quickly and deeply with a place, only to move on the next day in search of a new type of fun with new types of people. Find sweet surprises and romance and sly smiles and moments to (literally) dance in the rain. You’ll know you’ve found it when your belly aches from laughter and your cheeks are sore from smiling and your head feels light and airy, just like your footsteps.
4. The food is excellent.
“A third of the people on this planet eat with their spoons and forks like you, a third of the people eat with chopsticks, and a third of the people eat with fingers like me. And we’re all just as civilized.”Unknown Afghan professor
Ok, the food everywhere isn’t excellent, but don’t let that stop you. Eating new foods is one of the great joys of travel. Try the local dish. Eat at the local time. If applicable, use your hands.
Always remember that food is intrinsically linked to culture and history and identity. Try your best not to dismiss foods just because you’ve never eaten them. Not everything you eat will be delicious, but you’ll probably be surprised by what you find if you’re willing to try the local food. Avoid touristy restaurants where the menu is written in several languages and opt instead for the local haunts, the busier the better. You can read more tips about finding great food here and here.
5. Travel will change you.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”Anthony Bourdain
Travel gives you the chance to try on being a new person like trying on a new pair of jeans. You’re surrounded by new people who won’t know that, on a regular Tuesday, you’re a pretty shy person. It also asks you to push yourself in ways you didn’t know you needed to be pushed.
If you’ve ever been lost while hiking or felt afraid for your safety or even just needed to find some respite in a crowded cafe, you’ll know what it means to be changed by a place. You can take those lessons with you into your life, learning to sense when someone is acting strange. I still have a scar on my arm from when the buckle on my backpack broke and the hard plastic sliced through my skin on a busy train in New York City.
Let yourself be changed. Let yourself learn and grow and evolve and sit with discomfort. If you want to get even better at sitting with discomfort, practice yoga and/or meditate. Savor the journey, that’s where the exploration happens.
6. You will learn to be uncomfortable.
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”Clifton Fadiman
You will probably feel uncomfortable while traveling. Cultural norms are different, social expectations are different, foods are different, and even the air can be different. In some of the most transformational travel moments of my life, I have been faced with a situation and thought, “Nothing in my life up and to this point has prepared me for this situation. I have no idea what to do.” And then, I used my best judgement and did something.
When I was studying abroad in Jordan during college, we went on a four day stay in the Bedouin region. While I was there, my host family made the sweetest tea I’d ever tasted. Knowing it was likely to be too sweet for me, they offered me the slightly less sweet tea that they prepared for my diabetic host father.
Even the modified version of the tea was so sweet that a glass of it would give me mood swings. I felt like I needed to immediately brush my teeth to remove the film of sugar. I got headaches a short while after drinking it. It was honestly sort of miserable, but I didn’t know what to do… this family had welcomed me into their home, so I felt like I couldn’t turn down the tea.
After a few cups, I started to sip it very, very slowly. Catching on, my host sister started bringing me the tea kettle before she added all of the sugar and I was able to have a slightly less sweet version of the tea than I’d originally been offered. Still, it was uncomfortable. I would have rather had tea that either wasn’t sweet, or had about a teaspoon of sugar in it. However, my job in that moment wasn’t to be as comfortable as possible. It was to learn. To be a respectful guest. To be adaptable. So, that’s what I did.
7. You will create memories you can keep for your whole life.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”Jack Kerouac
Why travel? Because there may come a time in your life where most of what you have is your memories. Those memories will be so much sweeter if they’re filled with times when you felt truly alive. Places you visited that taught you something new. People you met who were so unfathomably unlike you that it challenged what you thought you knew about the world. Take risks while you can.
8. Travel stories are one of the most beautiful gifts.
“Fill your life with experiences, not things. Have stories to tell, not stuff to show”Unknown
I shared some of my travel stories from Colombia recently, you can read them here.
There are the times where you meet strangers and connect instantly, only to never see them again. They’ll flick into your mind as a sweet memory, and you’ll wish them well. While in Guatemala, we met a fellow who spent his summers planting trees in Canada so that he could travel for the rest of the year. I’ll never forget him, partly because he had a pen deadlocked into his hair–as in, one of his dreadlocks held a Bic-style pen.
He told us stories about how awful tree planting is (you can read more here) and introduced me to a new style of living–working for a while and then spending the money traveling. I’ve since met several people who live this way, and there’s an undeniable freedom to it. I don’t remember his name, but I’m sure the man with the pen in his dreads has many stories to tell. And I wish him well.
9. Discover that most people are understandable.
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”Maya Angelou
One of the most important components to othering is believing that people are in some way fundamentally different from you. It’s a lie. They might have different values or come from a different culture or believe in different things, but they’re still people. They still want the best for their families. They want to live in a place that is safe. They want food to eat and a comfortable bed to sleep in and friends they enjoy and economic security.
It’s so much easier to spot the differences between two cultures than the similarities. Train yourself to notice the little ways that people act just like you, even in a context where everything can seem so very different. If you can, try to connect with local people. Learn what they care about. Ask how their society is changing. You might be surprised by their answers.
I once asked someone from Australia (who had a grisly story about being stung by a sting ray) what sort of wildlife scared him the most. I was anticipating that he’d say a sting ray, a spider, or some sort of snake, but instead he simply said, “kangaroos.” He went on to tell me that they were very large, could hurt you if you hit them with your car, and they can injure people with their powerful kicks. He said the other animals are pretty rare, but kangaroos are super common, likening them to “really jacked rabbits.”
I couldn’t help but think about all of the people in the US who might say that dogs were the most frightening animals in America, despite the array of potentially lethal animals and spiders living in the country. It’s true, though–you’re much more likely to get bitten by a dog than a bear.
10. Practice taking risks.
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”John A. Shedd
Travel gives you an unparalleled opportunity to practice taking risks. You can take a chance on something like a newly listed Airbnb, a mistake that I made once that resulting in my staying in a room with no windows for a week. You can take hikes that sound intimidating, like the one we took to Laguna 69, an alpine lake about 15,000 feet above sea level near Huaraz, Peru.
Although the hike was beautiful, it was also extremely challenging. My boyfriend struggled with altitude sickness most of the way up, and by the time we got to the top he was struggling to keep his eyes open. A pair of New Yorkers made it about 20 minutes to the top before turning around. It was a very challenging hike in our books!
The beauty came afterwards, when we spent our rest day sitting in an American cafe in Huaraz. We struck up a conversation with two other Americans, who have since become good friends and visited us in Ireland a few weeks ago. The beauty of risks is that you never know where they’re going to lead. Just make sure they’re healthy risks and don’t venture into ‘reckless’ territory.
Why travel? Because travel is a way for us to connect. We can travel to connect with ourselves, or even with parts of ourselves we thought we’d lost or we never knew we had. It’s a way for us to feel grounded, tethered to all of the other people who make up the world. Travel can help us to experience fun and inspiration and joy and belonging, all of which can change how we see ourselves.
If you travel, let it change you. Don’t fight the place and try to make it fit into the way you thought the world worked, evolve. You will live and die without knowing everything there is to know about the world, and that’s ok! It’s part of the experience of being human. Be liberated from the idea that you’ve got it all figured out and humbly explore with the goal of learning.
Take the goals that you learn on your travels home with you. Change your mind. Change your politics. Change your expectations for your government. Appreciate the things that your country does well, but notice the places where it falls short. Recognize that the easiest way to be powerless is to decide that you have no power. Support the arts and education and higher living standards and dignity for everyone on earth simply because they’re human, just like you.
Why travel? Because you only get one shot, so give it your best.
Do you have any favorite travel quotes? Let me know in the comments!